July 12, 2013
by Bryan Haley
Omega-3s are a popular health topic these days, with more and more brands and labels advertising that their products contain Omega-3s. But what are they and how do they fit into a healthy lifestyle plan? This brief article will attempt to explain what all the excitement is about.
Omega-3 is a name for a specific type of fat, more technically, a polyunsaturated fat or often described as an essential fatty acid. They are considered essential because Omega-3s are required for proper functioning of the body and we cannot produce it ourselves, so we must obtain them directly through diet or supplementation. But what exactly do they do and how do they benefit us?
A complete list of Omega-3s effects on the body would fill several pages. In a nutshell, Omega-3s reduce the bodies tendency towards inflammation, helps regulate the breakdown of fat, builds healthy skin and nails, helps thin the blood and is important in proper brain function. These wide range of important health benefits is the reason Omega-3s have been promoted to help a variety of conditions.
For instance, by reducing the bodies tendency towards inflammation, Omega-3s may benefit diseases related to inflammation such as asthma, eczema and rheumatoid arthritis. As well, Omega-3s could help with health issues involving the improper breakdown of fats such as high cholesterol and obesity. Since Omega-3s help thin the blood and therefore improve blood flow they can help lower blood pressure and prevent heart disease and stroke. Finally, Omega-3s are used as a major building block in the brain, making them a crucial requirement for proper brain function and also why they are useful for conditions related to mental well being such as depression, bipolar disorder and learning disabilities like ADHD.
But a discussion of Omega-3s would be incomplete without mentioning Omega-6s, another essential fatty acid. Unlike Omega-3s, Omega-6s generally have opposite effects on the body. For example, Omega-6s increase the bodies tendency towards inflammation and tend to thicken the blood. This is why too much Omega-6 fatty acids with respect to Omega-3s are thought to contribute to the prevalence of conditions such as asthma, eczema, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. On the other hand, too much Omega-3s can lead to rare bleeding disorders which is why it is important to have a balance of both Omega-3s and Omega-6s.
Nonetheless, most people get plenty of Omega-6s in their diet but lack Omega-3s, which in the typical North American diet, is found in foods that are consumed less often. These foods include walnuts, flax seed, primrose and borage oil, wild caught fish, especially fatty fish such as mackerel, anchovies, salmon and trout. Animal sources of Omega-3s and generally a more potent source of this essential fatty acid. This is why it is recommended to consume at least two portions of fish per week. An alternative to dietary sources of Omega-3s is to purchase supplements that contain high levels of Omega-3s, especially EPA and DHA. Supplementation of Omega-6s is usually counterproductive because they are already so common in our diet.